The broadcast and online versions of this story first appeared May 23, 2019, on WCPO Channel 9 and wcpo.com, respectively.
CINCINNATI – Organizers expect an estimated half-million people to flock Downtown this Memorial Day weekend to attend the Taste of Cincinnati.
Visitors will be able to sample nearly 500 food items from the local vendors, according to the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Those vendors will line Fifth Street just east of Main Street four blocks and then onto the entrance ramps of Columbia Parkway and I-71. Festival hours are 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday.
“The Taste of Cincinnati is no joke,” said Ebony Pickens, owner of Flavors of the Isle. “It is the biggest event of the year when it comes to food service.”
Pickens’ Jamaican and American soul food catering business is one of a growing number of new food startups bringing new life to the 41-year-old Taste of Cincinnati in recent years.
“Last year we did 900 servings of jerk chicken and we did close to that in red beans and rice until we just ran out,” Pickens said. “It definitely was an educational experience.”
For this weekend, Pickens prepped 1,200 servings of chicken and red beans and rice. She’s also made 15 gallons of barbecue sauce that Flavors of the Isle serves as a condiment. The Flavors of the Isle booth is once again part of the Taste of Findlay Market, located on the Columbia Parkway on-ramp at Taste of Cincinnati.
Organizers added the Findlay Market area to Taste of Cincinnati three years ago to showcase members of the nonprofit Findlay Kitchen food entrepreneur incubator.
“We help food entrepreneurs start growing and scale their business,” said Amy Stull, manager of the Findlay Kitchen incubator.
Pickens joined the incubator early last year. She sought out the kitchen to help expand the catering service she started from her home in 2012. As a member, the former Internet Technology specialist gained access to Findlay’s industrial kitchens, as well as professional advice.
This year, 16 other Findlay Kitchen startups signed up to join Flavors of the Isle at the Taste of Findlay Market.
“Fifteen of those fall into a women, immigrant or minority-owned status,” Stull said. “It’s really exciting. We’re going to have a huge array of foods that are going to be offered this year.”
Guillermo Vidal and his business partner Arnaldo Vazquez plan to go through nearly 2,000 plantains at their Mashed Roots booth this weekend. The small, banana-like fruits are the main ingredients in the mofongo bowls the pair plan to serve.
Mofongo is a traditional Latin-Caribbean dish made with fried plantains and served with a variety of other ingredients.
“We know once people try it, they will fall in love with it,” Vidal said.
Vidal described himself as half Cuban, half Brazilian and 100 percent Miami. He moved from Miami to Cincinnati for his job 13 years ago. Vazquez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He too moved to the Queen City because of his career.
“For us, it’s kind of like this is our home now, so we want to bring a little bit of our first home to our new home and share it with folks,” Vidal said.
Mashed Roots was one of the first startups to join the Findlay Kitchen when it opened in Over-the-Rhine in April 2016. This is Vidal and Vazquez’s third year participating in the Taste of Cincinnati.
“We plan to open a brick-and-mortar location in College Hill soon,” Vidal said.
And that is the ultimate goal of Findlay Kitchen – to help passionate people, who might otherwise not have the chance, fulfill their culinary dreams, Stull said.
Taste of Findlay Market plays its part by exposing those startups to thousands of hungry people, she added.
“Businesses like the Arepa Place or Flavors of the Isle or Mashed Roots, who are coming back for their second or third year are seeing great success because of this event,” she said.
Stull is particularly proud of Isis Arrieta-Dennis, another of Findlay Kitchen’s first members, who opened a brick-and-mortar The Arepa Place location at Findlay Market last September.
“I’m so proud to see how they have grown,” Stull said.
Arrieta-Dennis planned to once again serve traditional Colombian arepas and empanadas at the Taste of Findlay Market.
“Having a newborn, he’s 10 weeks old and it’s challenging,” Arrieta-Dennis said, referring to preparing food for the festival,while operating her restaurant and balancing time with her family.
Arrieta-Dennis said before connecting with Findlay Kitchen, she and her husband exhausted all other avenues trying to launch The Arepa Place.
“It wasn’t just me,” Arrieta-Dennis said of her growing success. “It was the help from my family, from my husband, from the community and from institutions like Findlay Market.”
“Findlay Kitchen, it is magical when you go down there,” she said. “We’re actually working on opening a restaurant here shortly as well. We’re a family-owned business. And it’s all because of Findlay Kitchen.”
“After the Taste of Cincinnati last year, we were getting calls to do almost every food festival after that.”